Why raising awareness about mental health is only the first step

By Samuel Buckley

It’s World Mental Health Day today (10 October). It’s also at least the tenth mental health awareness day of the year so far, in a calendar that kicks off with ‘Blue Monday’ in January.

This is not a bad thing. Clearly there’s a real appetite for greater understanding of mental health conditions and challenging preconceptions and stigma. And maybe even more so this year it feels timely to devote days to talking about mental health: in 2017 we have seen Prince Harry and Prince William work hard to open up the conversation, taking bold steps in sharing personal experiences. Celebrities like Cara Delevigne, Kanye West, Gabby Logan and Ryan Giggs have all been vocal in the last couple of years either about past experiences or about managing present conditions.

Colleagues holding a meetingBut what do all these awareness days mean for employers?

First and foremost, the challenge is to make sure awareness raising and stigma-busting is backed by action.

Awareness-raising needs to be where employers start. It cannot be a goal in itself – it has to be a treated as a step towards achieving lasting change further down the line. There is no use in talking positively about mental health and encouraging openness, for instance, if there is no day-to-day support for workers, or managers who are well-equipped to help staff who experience mental ill-health. Even worse, calling for greater openness or awareness around mental health at work may, in some workplaces, only serve to highlight the fact that practical support is not there.

Cisco logoWe saw a great example of how mental health awareness can feed into action and building capability when Heather Carey, Account Manager at Cisco, shared her own story of living with anxiety to push for greater awareness in her workplace, but then ensured that Cisco followed this with action.

Heather launched a campaign to raise awareness of how stress and work pressures can impact on mental health and how the business could support employees’ wellbeing, before leading the training of 21 volunteers who are specially equipped to provide mental health support across Cisco.

By the end of 2016, this network of volunteers were able to provide support across all 17 of Cisco’s sites in the UK and Ireland, while many more employees joined a company-wide support network for wellbeing and mental health.

This success illustrates what we should aim to achieve with raising awareness of mental health conditions and how they may or may not affect employees at work. When awareness-raising spurs action and practical steps to support employees, the results can be dramatic and hugely rewarding. But this means awareness-raising cannot be the end point – it has to be a start.

Our latest podcast, ‘Mental Health At Work’ released to coincide with World Mental Health Day today (10 October) features our experts Christopher Watkins and Angela Matthews discussing mental health in the workplace as well as their own experiences. You can listen now on our website.

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